The burger game is strong in Chattanooga. So strong, there's even a hashtag for it: #CHABurger.
Asking someone what their favorite burger in town is, I learned, a loaded question. People have a definitive favorite - but it could be one of more than a dozen burgers around. People revise their lists on the blogosphere anytime a new burger place pops up. Rumors spread, and suddenly there's a showdown, a contest between the old diners and the new contenders.
Rather than set out to find the best burger in town (that's a can of worms I won't begin to open) I polled my coworkers and friends here to identify what the widely accepted 10 best burgers are.
My list was a moving target - I was embarking on a weeklong journey of burger consumption and I was sure to be swayed by the other burger worshippers.
To eliminate any possible burger fatigue and to keep my palate cleansed, I made sure to try a good selection of different burgers. Let me tell you, for more than one reason this was a dream come true. I felt like the big man on campus, strutting through the newsroom full of delicious burgers after marathon eating sessions. If this were a college course, I got my doctorate in burgers. Meghan Pittman, Ph.D is now an expert on burgers in Chattanooga.
Lee's Armando's: Patty Melt
I have a confession to make. I sampled the wrong burger at Armando's. I didn't check my notes before I left and accidentally insisted to Keith Miller and Lee himself that I had to try the Patty Melt. I came into the self-proclaimed house of Chattanooga's best burger and disappointed you. I should have tried the Mushroom Swiss Burger. I'm sorry, to both of you. No establishment of 27 years deserves that. Actually, I'm not sorry! The patty melt was perfect. Buttery and thick Texas Toast flanked the burger patty better than buns could. With tangy mayo, onions and the oozing sweetness of American cheese, this non-burger burger is a staple. As Keith Miller tells me as a regular walks in and oogles my sandwich, "He's a Patty Melt man. Some people are burgers, he's a Patty Melt." I'll be back for that Mushroom Swiss Burger, by the way. Armando burger served with Texas Toast, mayo, grilled onions and American cheese.
The Honest Pint: This Burger is the Jam Burger
This Burger is the Jam Burger is the first burger I ever tried here in Chattanooga. After accepting this job and feeling like I had the world at my feet, we set out to The Honest Pint at the suggestion of a friend to celebrate. It's not a fancy place by any means, but the Honest Pint does have chandeliers to accompany the dark wood interior, and I was charmed by it at first sight. While my salmon BLT was perfect in its "I'm trying to be healthy but failing" goodness, it was really Lou's burger that drew me in, like a moth to a flame. With caramelized onions, bleu cheese and the delectable bacon jam, the sweet, savory and umami-packed flavors just hit me. It's indulgent and sinful. I'm this close to carving our initials in a heart on a table here, just to prove how crazy I am for this burger. Burger with blue cheese, caramelized onions and bacon jam. Yes, that is exactly what you think it is.
Main Street Meats: House Burger
I'm a cheerleader of Main Street Meats' mission. I've tried many of their lunch sandwiches (and I maintain that Friday's barbecue special, Lipstick on a Pig, is the best pulled pork in town) but I've been circling their burger for too long. It's simple, "chef" Ryan Coulter tells me. "It's our house burger. It's how we serve it. There's no ketchup, no lettuce, no tomato," he says, as the aromas surround him. As I talk to Ryan, nearly a dozen patrons come in, ordering the burger or the barbecue sandwich. Erik Neil of Easy Bistro and Jim Johnson of Cloudcrest Farms are among them. "That's Cloudcrest Farms. Our farmers come to us and eat here," he says. What I first notice about this burger is that it holds up nicely. Onions and pickles don't fall out, juice is in the burger, not on my butcher's paper, and the bun is clamshell-like to the patty and adornments. Because the patty is cooked on a cast iron griddle over a range, there's a crust to the burger that, combined with the sweet acid of pickles, toast of the bun made fresh from next-door and crunch of bacon, gives the burger a substantial range of textures and flavors. Dry-aged, grass-fed beef patty cooked on a 700 F griddle, stacked on a mayo'd black-peppered Niedlov's bun, served with gruyere cheese, caramelized onions, house cured bacon, brown mustard and pickles. Whew.
Petunia's Silver Jalapeno: Southwest Burger
I'll admit it, I've never had guacamole on a burger. It almost just doesn't seem like it would work-I like my guac bright, spicy, even citrusy-not something I imagine working with a burger. But I was about to try it, sitting in the food court of Warehouse Row. Petunia's is a lunch spot favorite for many of the office workers in the surrounding block, so I'm not surprised to see a handful of people there taking a late lunch. Burgers aren't usually on my list for lunch, but after several suggestions that I try the Southwest Burger, why not? It wasn't that I wasn't expecting much from Petunia's, but I was floored at how nicely this burger came together. Instead of chunky, chip-worthy guac, this guac together with the pico and basil mayo gave the spicy burger a cool reprieve. It's also served on a Bluff View Bakery bun, a nice alternative to the ubiquitous Niedlovs. Someone tried to order it without guacamole, but was told "then it's not a outhwest burger!" I agree.Chargrilled burger with fresh basil mayo, pepper jack cheese, lettuce, house-made pico de gallo and guacamole. Ole!
Slick's Burger: BBQ Slick
Slick's is the new kid on the block when it comes to burgers. Located in the (still) up-and-coming St. Elmo neighborhood, the burger joint is a no frills, simply put, place to get a solid burger. Chattanooga Food Ventures duo Robb Peterson and Eric Taslimi helm the spot with a bright outlook on the neighborhood and their burgers. "We got in the burger game because we know we can make a good burger," Robb tells me. "People come here from all over for our burger, and we know this is a good place to be." Fair enough, I say. The interior of the restaurant is covered in old vintage signs, beer lamps and a chalkboard sign with coded names like "Sissy" or "Slick" burgers. We try the Sunshine Fries and the BBQ Burger at Robb's behest. The in-house ground black angus beef burger comes piled high with cheddar cheese, house-made barbecue sauce and Benton's bacon. It's a crowd pleaser, for sure. It's a great burger that holds up the dive's motto, "Love, peace and burger grease."In-house ground burger with house-made 'cue sauce, cheese and the elusive Benton's bacon.
The Terminal: Bison Burger
The Terminal is a Chattanooga favorite, no doubt. With stories of beer drinking lads and lasses who call this place home: if only to get a local brew and a great burger at the same time. The Bison burger is their best seller, I'm told, and it's easy to see why. It's your basic burger, except made with ground bison meat. Sounds simple enough, right? How different can bison be from regular ground beef? It's noticeably leaner, which is a nice departure from some of the gloriously greasy and fatty burgers I've tried this week. It's also helped by being marinated in the Terminal's own beer. Burger with mustard, lettuce, tomato: your classic burger, just with Bison.
Universal Joint: The Steinbeck
There can only be so many burgers I try before I am drawn to the pimento cheese burger. At Universal Joint, the amazing new gas station bar downtown, the restaurant borrows from one of its Atlanta counterparts for the Steinbeck. Local owner Sean Corely already knew what burger I wanted when I walked through the door and he promised me he'd "do it right." As we checked for the best place to shoot the burger, we wondered what we could do to make this burger stand out from our other shoots-after a while, I was thinking a burger is just a burger. We didn't have to do much, though, because this burger is stacked! We gasped when we saw it on the plate and were so careful positioning it because we were afraid it'd fall apart, like a precarious game of Jenga. Complete with a pickle and pickled jalapenos, the creamy sharpness of the cheddar cheese pimento and the crunch of the bacon and onions, this behemoth burger had a little spice and a lot of nice. Burger piled way high with pickles, ranch, pimento cheese and jalapenos.
Urban Stack: Hercules Lamb Burger
I'm dismayed by the lack of Greek food here in Chattanooga, but as I'm told at Urban Stack, if I like Greek food then this is a brilliant burger for me. I've had several of Urban's stacks, but never ventured toward this one before because I've been too waylaid by classic choices like the Steakhouse. But still, someone said it was a must, and I'm adventurous. If it could ever be construed to be Greek cuisine, it's on this burger. Not that I mind that, but I wondered how all of the components, like tapenade, feta spread and roasted red pepper, would work together on a bun and a lamb patty. The texture of the ground lamb patty is almost gyro-like! The briny olives, sweet peppers and sharp feta all come together with the spices to make this kitschy burger memorable. Neidlov's bun, Greek-style ground lamb, cukes, roasted red peppers, tapenade, feta spread - sounds Greek to me.
Tremont Tavern: The Coltrane (One Eye) Burger
I am very familiar with Tremont Tavern's burgers-so much so that I could recite the burgers on their menu from my freakishly photographic (albeit slightly obsessive) memory. But I've never tried the Coltrane, a burger sent over the top with the addition of a runny fried egg. We were seated at 11:30 a.m., right when the doors opened for the day, with three other tables. By noon, the place was packed. It never gets old to Tremont "pawn" Jeremy Harrison, who is assisting us with the burger that day. "Everyone here takes pride in Tremont and what we serve and how we serve it," he tells me. He's almost even upset that the egg yolk broke before we could bite into the burger. I'm not. This is a two handed, elbows on the table kind of burger. It's your classic burger and then some, from good to OMG. From the perfection of the patty to the rich silkiness of the egg, even the obvious ketchup and mustard play nice in this burger. I think Dr. Seuss summed up my feelings about the Coltrane in his classic poem, Green Eggs and Ham. I will eat them here and there, I will eat them anywhere. In-house ground burger served on Niedlov's bun with cheddar cheese, green leaf lettuce, tomato, red onion, mayo, mustard, ketchup and a fried egg on top. That's the one eye.
Merv's: Merv's Burger
Instead of having the best burger in Chattanooga, Merv's has the best burger in Tennessee. Says so right on the door. Sweet Stacy Morris stands by it, bubbly and frantic as the reopening of the north Chattanooga favorite has far exceeded her expectations. "We really do have such a large following and a lot of loyal customers," she tells me. "The burger has always been the same here, we haven't changed a thing." This is the backyard burger of your dreams. When you cook out for your friends on a nice Sunday afternoon, this is the burger you try to make. But you don't because you're not Merv's and you're too hungry to stack the burger perfectly. Burger on a sesame bun, shredded lettuce, disc of onion, tomatoes, pickles, cheese and mustard.